Dissertation Day and a Big Announcement

Today is the second anniversary of defending my Ph.D. dissertation. It is a good day to announce a big change has happened in my career.

But before I get to that I want to apologize to the readers of this blog. There has not been a lot of activity here for a couple of months. Because of the nature of the job I currently have (Head Coach of a swim team) and taking care of my daughter during the day (which is very fun!), blogging has been one of the activities that I have had to stop.

This is about to change.

I am pleased to let you all know that I have received a postdoctoral fellowship. Starting September 1st I will be conducting my research at the Université de Montréal under the supervision of Brian Massumi in the Department of Communication. I’m really excited to be working with Brian and be given the time to further the work I had begun in my Ph.D.

If you are curious, part of the proposal I submitted for this fellowship can be found below.

For my post-doctoral project I propose to elaborate on a concept I developed for my doctoral dissertation called “the incipiency of images” by specifically focusing on how an occurrence of incipiency emerges during an encounter with visual art. To do this I will be centering my post-doctoral research on the idea that what we come to see emerges from an incipient activity generated through relationally complex occurrences of colour contrast.

In my dissertation incipiency was conceived as a fluid and generative activity that unceasingly shifts and changes, making it impossible for images to actually remain static. It ensures that seemingly “still” images are always undergoing a process of emergence, even if this process appears too subtle to be actually perceived. Despite incipiency’s imperceptible tendencies, I explained how particular artworks enable this generative activity to be experienced. Through a close analysis of flicker films, internet art, video art, and the paintings of Piet Mondrian and Robert Irwin, I suggested that incipiency could be experienced as a feeling of intensity, or what I called “compositional force”, making an image’s emergence momentarily perceptible. The concept of compositional force was crafted to designate the ingathering of relations that activate an image’s emergent composition. This composition, I emphasized, is as “virtual” as it is “actual” (Deleuze and Guattari 1997). The virtual is where all potential resides. It is not opposed to the real, rather it is real but abstract (Massumi 2002). The virtual constantly alters any actualized composition through the influx of new potentialities, which instigates an image’s incipiency.

With this new project I will specifically address how the incipiency that comes to be felt in the encounter with an artwork is generated by colour contrasts through the close analysis of Bridget Riley’s optical painting, Barnett Newman’s and Ad Reinhardt’s color-filed painting, Apple’s Retinal Display technology, and Florian Cramer’s digital “Floppy Films”. According to Riley, the basic principle essential to all visual art is the contrast of colours. For her, colour contrast presents a paradox that offers something to sight that is both singular and multiple. The multiple is more than simply a collection of various colours. Each singular colour has the ability to affect how those that surround it are perceived and vice versa, generating the relational complexity that for Riley seems paradoxical. I will suggest that this relational complexity — concurrently seeing colours through their singularity and multiplicity — generates the intensive compositional forces viewers experience when encountering works of visual art. It is important to repeat that a multiplicity of colours is not simply a gathered collection of juxtapositions and it is here that we can understand the value of thinking in terms of contrast. For philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, contrast is more than a juxtaposition that produces an opposition. Contrast, as he defines it, is an activity of “conjoint unity” that enables two or more potential colours to come together (Whitehead 1978). I will suggest that, in the coming together of colours, contrast produces the paradoxical fluctuation between the singularity and multiplicity of colours that is experienced as the compositional forces felt in the seeing. Contrast is therefore important to visual perception because it activates the complexity inherent to all colours, enabling images to incipiently emerge into sight.

While artists and scientists have explored and exploited the contrast of colours for centuries, my proposed project differs from other similar research, such as the scientific studies by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839/1967) and Ogden Rood (1879) and art historical projects like Seitz’s “The Responsive Eye” (1965) and Houston’s “Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s” (2007), by focusing on how perception is generated in the encounter between the artwork and the viewer. Following Whitehead, Massumi and Manning, I want to explore how the activity of perception is not exclusively human generated. According to these thinkers, perception is also available to the non-human in some form. In fact, these thinkers would argue that everything that is felt or perceived is co-generated in an ecology of relation that is “more-than” human. My project will explore this concept of the more-than human component of perception through an emphasis on the ability of colour contrast to generate ecologies that exceed the strict dichotomy of artwork and viewer.

Although the most of the artworks discussed in this project will be from the Modernist period, the issue of colour contrast is an important concern within a contemporary context. I believe the prevalence of digital imaging technology has the potential to reduce colour in art to numeric and binary codes, de-emphasizing the seemingly imperceptible, yet felt, compositional forces experienced during the activity of seeing. In an era that foregrounds computational processes and quantifiable information, attending to the qualities and contrasts of colours that are felt in the midst of an encounter with art is more relevant than ever.

My research will culminate in a manuscript and book proposal, which I will submit to publishers in my field such as the University of Minnesota Press or MIT Press. This project will consist of an introduction and six chapters. The introduction will outline the singular-multiple paradox of colour contrast through the example of Apple’s Retinal Display technology found in iPhones and iPads, which generates imagery using coloured pixels too small to be seen. In chapter 1, through the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat, I will examine the connections and discontinuities between Whitehead’s notion of contrast and various scientific theories from the nineteenth century, particularly Chevreul’s “law of simultaneous colour contrast.” I will further address how the singular-multiple paradox of colour contrast is generated when experiencing the thousands of tiny coloured dots that compose Seurat’s work. In chapter 2, I will then focus on Barnett Newman’s colour-field paintings, looking at the way colour contrast’s singular-multiple paradox produces a resonance that ultimately affects the experience of the colours themselves. I will explore how his work is able to generate compositional forces that come to be felt in the seeing as sensations (Deleuze 2003). For chapter 3, I will examine the colour-line optical paintings of Riley from the 1970s. Elaborating on the notion of sensation in the previous chapter, I will explore the proposition that these repeating colour contrasts produce what Whitehead calls “patterned contrasts” (1978). In chapter 4 I will explore Riley’s black and white work of the 1960s, examining how the “patterned contrasts” experienced with these works generates a seeing that exceeds normal visual perception. In chapter 5, I will focus on the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. Through the muted colour palette of these works, I will examine what colour contrast offers to experience by exploring how the images take time to emerge from these subtle black on black contrasts. Because these works evolve over time, they demonstrate that all colour contrasts can be considered what I will call “experiential events”. In chapter 6 I will conclude by discussing how Cramer’s series of digital videos called “Floppy Films” produce experiential events through colour contrasts. I will explain how the colour contrasts expand beyond the limits of each pixel, enabling relations to take hold among the various colours. At the same time, a also contraction occurs, joining the various colours together in order to produce something more than just a collection of colours. They produce a seeing event that is “more-than” human.

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2 Responses to Dissertation Day and a Big Announcement

  1. Shane Denson says:

    Great news. Congratulations!

  2. Pingback: Time to Start Focusing | Drops of Experience

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